If fictional detective Philip Marlowe closed up shop and started traveling the country as an itinerant reporter, he might sound something like Charlie LeDuff in “End of the Line,” our latest Notable Narrative. This feature from Mother Jones chronicles hard times in Janesville, Wis., which recently boasted an unemployment rate of 8.1%, the highest in the state.
The title echoes throughout the piece: The assembly line at the GM plant is now closed, cutting off the livelihood for four generations that marched from birth to work to death in a company town. And the line of immigrants and Southerners who came to Janesville for jobs for nearly a century ends with factory worker Pragnesh Patel, who now regrets leaving India for America.
LeDuff melds a sense of sorrow with an investigator’s will to decipher clues. The local hotel doesn’t have a single light on. A bar on the GM grounds has become a funeral parlor. The strip club across the street now hosts AA meetings. And freight trains leave Janesville’s loading docks taking “auctioned bits and pieces of the plant to faraway places.” Piling up the detritus of a town, LeDuff comes to the conclusion that “the best days around here are gone.”
At one point, LeDuff finds a photo of a picnic from the town’s heyday, which sports the caption “Were you there Charlie?” Yes, it turns out, Charlie was, and by putting the reader in his shoes, he turned an unemployment statistic into a story.
[See the full photo gallery from Danny Wilcox Frazier.]